Growing up I often heard my mother say something to the affect of “ Whenever you have it bad…remember that someone else always has it worse!” The new film Precious exemplifies that notion to a T. Although filled with the trials and tribulations of an obese teenage black girl, a story about a grim life doesn’t simply sum Precious up. The movie Preciou: Based on the book Push by Sapphire, is a complex narrative that will stun and move you more than any other film this year.
It doesn’t take long for the dire images to appear in Precious and the point that Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in an atrocious environment is driven home. She’s 16, lives in the Harlem projects, is pregnant –with her second baby and has a mother that would make mommy dearest herself flinch. At one point her mother, Mary Johnston (MoNique) tells Precious; “you’re a dummy bitch- you will never know sh*t, don’t nobody want you –don’t nobody need you.” The films display of such blatant abuse is surreal and even jaw dropping yet crafted and framed just right and in the process avoids an unbearable nuance that an audience couldn’t digest. To the credit and smarts of Precious’s director Lee Daniels, the camera always seemed to cut away just at the right moment and let the viewers imagination continue to roll.
When Precious drifts away mentally into her nirvana of being a celebrity in the spotlight with a “cute light skinned boyfriend” Daniels continues to exude excellent directorial and artistic choices to heighten Precious’s coping within her world of shambles. Much of this comes in the form of the unspoken yet speaks loud and clear about an array of issues in the film- such as when Precious’ mirror image appears as a white girl you need not wonder if Precious has any self image issues. Lee’s balance of grim reality and arty optimism make Precious a disturbingly beautiful masterpiece that you’ll want to see over and over.
Precious has many memorable scenes that will become water cooler talk long after you’ve seen the film. It is in the staircase mise-en-scene as Precious stands at the top of the stairs getting chastised by her mother standing at the bottom of the stairs that demonstrates on several fronts, what great filmmaking looks and sounds like. This David and Goliath power struggle of sorts between Precious and her mother not only showcases superb acting, directing and even cinematography it also captures an extraordinary cinematic visual and emotional paradox.
The images in Precious will certainly be seen by some as stereotypical depictions of African Americans. Not only is the protagonist poor, uneducated and an unwed teen mother – Mary Johnston is the epitome of a stereotype of the worst kind. She’s a lazy, foul mouthed, welfare recipient Black woman who does everything she deceitfully can to remain on a government assistance lifestyle. However, failing to see past the stereotypical surface of these characters means a failure of understanding the film. Part of Daniels’ trademark is his ability to take the viewer to those politically incorrect and socially ill places without wincing. During one her talks with the social worker Precious reveals that, while giving birth on the kitchen floor… her mother was “kicking her in the head.” Such cruel anecdotes are not reflections of a stereotype rather a reminder that life is not a Norman Rockwell picture for everyone.
If you leave Precious talking about nothing else it will surely be about that of Mary Johnston and the tour de force performance MoNique gives portraying Precious’ brazen sadistic mother. On the surface Mary is a callous monster who’s a ticking time bomb coupled with seemingly mental issues. Yet Monique’s performance exudes the type of complexity that will challenge how you feel about someone that you’d otherwise easily love to hate. It’s MoNique like you’ve never seen nor imagined her before. A comedienne by trade yet an actress at heart, Monique has arrived and is simply unforgettable.
A complete unknown until now, leading actress Gabourey Sidibe delivers a performance that would rival that of most seasoned Hollywood thespians…and this is her first film EVER. Gabourey’s depiction of Precious went beyond the typical victim characterization and brought an organic quality to the character making it nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Gabourey’s subtle, smart yet vulnerable performance was a compelling feat that you will stand up and cheer for. Even pop star wannabe actress Mariah Carey proves that perhaps…given the right role she too is an actress that can hold her own.
For all of the abstract cuts and hints of an experimental film style - Precious still falls into very familiar American cinema territory –the dramatic social problem film. It is a heavy, unapologetic glimpse into a world of surreptitious abuse, struggle and survival which is precisely what makes Precious an absolute standout. Don’t expect many answers or remedies to the dysfunctions of this family and societal ills – Daniels leaves that up to the viewers. Precious is very much deserving of any accolades it will surely receive including an Oscar and deserving of your time along with standing ovation and a thunderous round of applause. Saying that Precious is one of the best films of the year (which it is) doesn’t quite do the film justice – it is also one the most important films you’ll have the fortune to see this year.
Precious is still showing around town in Dallas with limited daily showings. It would be well worth the effort to see it before the Oscars next month. It will then become apparent why an Academy Award would be more than a worthy precious accolade for this film.